by elfin

So how far did you go for shelter?
How long did it take you to find
A place to sell your providence
And to pawn your peace of mind
- Lyrics from �I�m Alive� by Shinedown, Avengers Soundtrack


Stark glanced up, threw a tired smile in Steve�s direction.

�I know, can you believe it? He passed right out. Too long spent as the big guy.� His smile faded. �Too much pain.� But another glance at Steve�s face and he realised he hadn�t been referring to the sleeping man with his head in Tony�s lap, but to the devastation around them � the staggered cracks in the marble flooring, the empty spaces where windows should have been, the shattered glass and dust and chunks of plaster. �Oh, that. I�ll get it fixed. It�s just a building. Contrary to popular believe, I�m not precious about stuff like that. Someone was just teaching an out-of-control demi-God a lesson downstairs.� He couldn�t help what he thought was probably a sappy expression climbing all over his face while he combed his fingers through Bruce�s black hair in what he hoped was a soothing way and not at all creepy.

"I said I was sorry.� On the seat next to him, Bruce shifted then turned onto his back, eyes still closed. Tony's hand stilled against the top of his head until he'd settled again, then resumed its stroking.

"Welcome back, grasshopper."

Bruce grunted, opened his eyes and lifted his head slightly, looking down at himself. "Who dressed me?"

Tony cradled the back of his head, a little possessive, a little protective. "I did. My clothes, sorry. You�re shorter than me. Most of the time."

"Green shirt?"

"It brings out the colour of your eyes. Or rather, his eyes. I didn�t think you�d care about the colour, seeing as how you were naked in front of the whole team. Besides, that shirt is tailored! It was expensive, so no hulking out!�

He sighed and lay back down, not complaining about Tony getting all touchy-feely with him. Tony took that as a good sign and took advantage, stroked the backs of his fingers along the side of his neck, dipping curious fingertips into the open collar of the green shirt. He felt a shiver when he touched skin, ghosted over a prominent collarbone then returned by the same path, resuming his hair stroking.

In the doorway, Steve cleared his throat � a sound both Tony and Bruce ignored � and came in to the room to sit a plaster-covered cushion. The major damage had been done downstairs, that was where the big guy had taken out a little of his frustration on Loki, made such a mess of the floor the whole thing would have to be replaced. Up here it wasn�t so bad. The windows were out and the floor had cracked in the beating the building had taken. But brush off the dust and the furniture was still intact.

�I thought we were going for Sharwama,� Cap commented, and Tony nodded.

�We most definitely are. Just waiting for the others to get the blood and brick dust out of their hair.� As he spoke he didn�t take his eyes from Bruce�s peaceful face; eyes closed, lips parted, soft breathing hinting that he�d fallen back to sleep. The rest of them were still running on adrenaline, but the Hulk used that up, so after changing back Bruce was running on empty and had been more shy and withdrawn than usual, prompting Tony to bring him up here for some private time while the others sought out first aid and showers. The level of trust that he was showing here was breathtaking. Tony had never felt so honoured, so fucking humbled. He could love this guy, seriously, completely and for the rest of his life.

�Oh my God, you guys....� Luckily Natasha�s voice was no louder than a whisper as she stepped through the open doorway with Clint just smiling at her shoulder. �You two are adorable.� Tony flipped her off with his free hand but she ignored him. �We�re missing Thor.�

�He escorted Loki back to Fury�s flying aircraft carrier. He said he�d be here.�

Clint crossed in front of Tony to sit on the other end of the couch, while Natasha paused to smile sweetly at him before she settled at Clint�s feet, toes just touching Cap�s leg. Rolling his head along the back of the couch, Clint nailed Tony with a look that was half-warning, half-amusement.

�Does he get any choice in the matter?�

�You think I could make him do anything he doesn�t want to? You were there, right? Met the big green alter-ego? Besides... he�s safe.�

He glanced again at Bruce�s face, wondered if he was really asleep. This thing had been building between them, slowly creeping around the edges of his consciousness with every moment spent in Banner�s company. A little hero worship, a lot of curiosity, and that smile on his face... the one that made Tony light up inside, the one that said he was having fun, despite the jibes and the wary, careful way everyone except Tony was acting around him. He�d known Bruce would join the battle even after falling ten thousand feet from the helicarrier because he�d already worked out the big secret, how he controlled his bigger half. Bruce�s secret was the same as Tony�s � once you�d fought and raged against the injustice, you learned how to live with it. Admittedly Tony hadn�t gone down the suicide route � his ego was way too inflated for him even to have considered it. He loved being alive. The world would be a darker place without him after all. But it had broken his heart a little to hear Bruce � a man he considered a genius and an equal in more ways than one � say that he�d tried to end his life. Maybe it was then that he�d decided he would do everything, anything, to bring him back, to make him see that running wasn�t the answer, that he�d be safe with them, with Tony.

He hadn�t yet said he�d stay. He hadn�t said much. But Tony wasn�t willing to let him go without a fight.

Tony�s hand strayed to the back of Bruce�s neck, pressing his fingers into muscles that were still tense. He felt him shift slightly, putting the pressure where he wanted it and he couldn�t help imagining getting the guy naked, spread out on his bed, straddling his hips, working out every knot until he was boneless enough to let Tony blow him. He had to move himself then, to make room for his erection in his jeans, and maybe someone would have said something if they hadn�t been surprised by big feet landing hard on broken glass and Thor�s booming voice.

�My brothers in arms! Shall we eat?�

As far as entrances went, it wasn�t bad.

�Hungry, fella and big fella?� Tony murmured, squeezing Bruce�s neck. He nodded, groaned and sat up slowly, stretching muscles and popping joints. Feet still on the couch, he surprised Tony by turning towards him, leaning over him with one hand settling close to Tony�s thigh, his wrist brushing his leg. Tony smiled and tried to remember to breathe. �Dr Banner.�

�Mr Stark.�

His eyes were still bloodshot, he looked as wiped out as the rest of them would do in a couple of hours. But he was smiling and he was so close Tony only had to lean forward to kiss him. For a heart-stopping moment he thought Bruce might take up the challenge he�d been laying down from the get-go, but instead he turned away, dropped his feet to the floor and glanced across at Thor.

�Let�s go.�


They made a strange little group in the strange little restaurant. With the exception of he and Bruce, and Clint and Natasha who had history, their band hadn�t exactly become firm friends. Tony spent the meal trying to work out how to get Bruce to return home with him, and the others didn�t really talk. But the food was good, a couple of them downed a beer or two, and Tony left a tip that was not far off enough to buy the place outright.

The city had been devastated and while they weren�t to blame, some short-sighted people were already holding them responsible. They needed to lay low for a while and the plan was to spend the night aboard the helicarrier then to go their separate ways in the morning after seeing Thor and Loki on their way back home. Steve was heading out to Washington. Clint and Natasha were back on assignment. As they left the restaurant, Tony stepped up to Bruce�s side and nudged him with one elbow.

�What are your plans?� he asked quietly, hoping it sounded like an open question. He was almost certain that the answer was going to be India, but Bruce shrugged.

�I hadn�t really thought about it. I didn�t expect to survive the fight, never mind win it.�

He decided to get straight to the point and spend the following hours talking Bruce into it, rather than to waste time dropping hints. �Come home with me.�

Bruce turned to look at him. �Your home�s in a bit of a mess, Tony. You don�t need me....�

He waved away the problem. �That�s not my home, it�s my office. I have this incredible house in Malibu with a lab that will blow your mind. You can meet Jarvis, catch some rays, play with my stuff....�


�Yeah, you know. California?�

Bruce looked honestly stunned. �You want me to go to California with you?�

Tony slapped a hand to his own chest. �You keep on breaking my heart.� He tried to make it sound humorous but didn�t think it had worked judging by the expression on Bruce�s face. �Yes, I want you to go to California with me. I want you to come home with me. I have all this cool tech and you will so get it! No one else gets it.� He wanted to say something about company and friendship, but all the words were getting jumbled in his head and nothing sounded right. He was starting to tire, finally, the events of the day starting to hit him, the adrenaline wearing off. �Let�s sleep on it. You can decide in the morning. Because if there�s somewhere else you�d rather be....�

But Bruce shook his head. �Actually, no, there isn�t. It�s not that I�d rather be somewhere else, it�s just that... I�m not sure you and I are such a good idea.�

Tony felt his smile burst across his face. �Are you saying you think there�s an �us�?�

Bruce�s answering smile was less bright, painfully shy. �I said you and I. And I was talking in terms of us being friends, co... somethings. I didn�t mean to imply that we�re... that we would.... I was just saying....� He took a deep breath and looked at Tony with such pleading in his eyes that Tony just melted. �Help me out here?�

He resisted the urge to simply throw his arms around Bruce�s shoulders and hug him. �I like the idea of a �you and I�,� he assured. �I love the idea of an �us�. We can figure out the details later, maybe in the morning after sleep and coffee and waffles.�

�I hate waffles.�

�No one hates waffles. How can you hate waffles? Waffles are the food of the Gods � ask Thor, I�ll bet ya they have waffles on Asgard. Hey! Thor! Wait up!�


Sleeping quarters aboard Fury�s boat were basic but at least the VIP rooms weren�t shared, had proper showers and bunks bigger than the standard military size. Tony missed his bed, his space, but on the other hand his room in his tower was full of rubble and glass, it was just one night and this way Bruce was just the other side of a metal wall. He tried to imagine him stripping naked, lying on top of the sheets because the air conditioning wasn�t functioning properly and it was hot in the bowels of the carrier. He was a great looking guy with a great body. Tony hadn�t bothered averting his eyes when Bruce had turned back in the ruins of his living room in Stark Tower. He�d given Tony a ride up because the suit hadn�t been functioning too well by then, and Tony was able to return the favour by finding him some clothes, but not until he�d committed a darkly haired, well built body to memory. He tried to forget the way the transformation had looked and sounded, and the way that Bruce had looked embarrassed and slightly ashamed when he�d opened his eyes. He hoped he hadn�t caught him staring, and wondered how he�d look when he was aroused, comfortable and confident, toes curling and fingers clutching.

But his fantasy kept turning into what reality was more likely to be; Bruce still fully clothed, curled up on the bunk next door with the blankets pulled over him, eyes closed but as far from sleep as it was possible to get. The bunks weren�t big enough for two, or maybe Tony would have bitten the bullet and pushed his way in there, put himself between Bruce and the wall and held him close until he let himself sleep. Bruce hated the helicarrier as much as Tony did. They shared the claustrophobia for entirely different reasons. But they were on the water, not in the air, and there was a subtle movement of the vessel against the tide even if Tony was maybe imagining it. Finally it ended up rocking him to sleep, and he dreamt of giant green men invading the earth.


Driving from New York to Malibu had been his original plan, keeping Bruce out of the air, but the Acura sucked up a ridiculous amount of gas and the journey would have taken three days. So they flew to New Mexico, car and all, saw the site where Thor had first landed, then drove on home. Most of a day had passed by the time they pulled into Tony�s driveway. The sun was coming back up. Still, Tony was wired and Bruce had at least slept, finally feeling safe enough to do so in an open top car blasting through the desert throughout the night. Difficult to feel claustrophobic out in the open.

Killing the engine, Tony leaned over murmuring, �Wakey, wakey, sleeping beauty,� and gently touched his shoulder. Bruce was a bad person to surprise and Tony really, really liked his new car. �Couple of minutes and we�ll get you into a real bed, then you can sleep for a week.�

Keeping his word, Tony led Bruce straight through the house to the guest room nearest to his own and pushed open the door, leading the way inside.

�Christ, Tony, I�ve lived in places smaller than this.� Then he yawned.

�Do you think for one second I�m going to apologise for being rich?� Bruce chuckled and shook his head. �En-suite�s through that door, kitchen�s one flight down. I�ll tell Jarvis you can go wherever you want. I�ll make sure there�s coffee and OJ when you wake up.� He smiled gently. �Oh, and waffles. You�ll love my waffles.� He got to the door and stopped. �You need me, just tell Jarvis, he�ll find me.�

�Jarvis is....� He made a twirling motion with his index finger pointed up at the ceiling.

�Yeah. But don�t worry, he�s very open minded and won�t peek.�

�Kinda creepy.� He actually looked too exhausted to really care. �Thanks, Tony.�

�Hey, you�re welcome. I�ll show you round when we�re both conscious.�

It took a certain amount of inner strength to leave the room and close the door behind him, but Bruce needed to sleep and he needed to wind down after a four hour flight and a sixteen hour drive. He went down to his lab, told Jarvis to afford Bruce Banner every courtesy and to allow him all the access he wanted. He checked his blood toxicity levels (normal, stable) while he filled in his personal AI on the events he hadn�t been privy too � namely his burgeoning friendship with their new housemate.

�Will he be staying long?� Jarvis asked, tone neutral.

�I hope so,� was all Tony could say.

He had a double whisky, tinkered for an hour, then checked in on Bruce and watched him for thirty seconds through the crack in the bedroom door. He was in the centre of the bed, under the comforter, bare shoulders visible in the dim sunlight coming in through the darkened windows. His clothes were in an untidy pile next to the bed, the door to the en-suite half-open. It was a start, he realised, to Bruce actually making himself at home. He fought the urge to join him, pulled the door closed silently and went up a flight to his own room, stripped and fell back onto the bed, lying awake until midday when he eventually lost consciousness.


By the time they woke, there was an entire wardrobe of shirts and pants in Bruce�s preferred size, boxers and socks in the drawers, shoes, a shaving kit, even a new toothbrush in the en-suite. Pepper�s magic. Tony slept for twenty four hours, Bruce slept for thirty six, waking in the middle of the night. Jarvis informed Tony that their guest was up, so Tony was in the kitchen to greet him. He was showered, looked refreshed and more relaxed than Tony had ever seen him. Whoever had done the clothes shopping had stayed away from the greens and he was in a deep red shirt hanging over black jeans.

He put a mug down on the bar and Bruce slid onto a stool in front of it. �Decaff, black, no sugar,� he hazarded and Bruce nodded, wrapped his hands around the huge mug gratefully and breathed in the bitter aroma.

�Thank you. And for the clothes, the bed, the roof....�

Tony held up a hand. �Stop. It�s all fine.�

But Bruce shook his head. �I�ve been through hell and back more times than I can count, Tony. I�ve been experimented on, I�ve been tortured and I�ve tried every way I can think of to end him and myself.� There was no self-pity or sorrow in his voice, just the same matter-of-fact tone he�d used in the lab on the helicarrier. �I got low....� �Very few people have ever helped me and no one�s done as much as you.�

Tony bit back his instinctive sarcasm. �I can do more and I will. You�re not a lab rat and I�m not going to let anyone treat you like one.� He waited until Bruce met his gaze and smiled before lightening the mood. �And will you please stop saying thank you like it�s this great shock I�m capable of altruism. We�re good. No thanks required. And just so you know, I have people working on material that will stretch and contract, so hopefully no more waking up in strange places naked.�

Bruce opened his mouth to say thank you and Tony wiggled a finger. �What did I say? If you really need to thank me, try my waffles.�

He shook his head. �I hate waffles. Too much sugar.�

�Sugar makes you go green?�

�Sugar elevates my heart rate and makes it more difficult to not �go green� if something provokes me.�

�So... what can I make you?�

He had to think about it, apparently. �Omelette?�

�Ahha! I can do that!�


It wasn�t a half-bad omelette either, if Tony did say so himself. Bruce seemed happy to eat it.

�Want another one?�

He shook his head. �No, thanks, but that was great.�

�Hey... what is with all this surprise? Is my reputation really this bad?�

One of those shy smiles touched Bruce�s lips, the ones that curled a tongue of heat around the base of Tony�s spine. �Natasha said you couldn�t cook for shit.�

He couldn�t believe what he was hearing. �That cheeky minx.... I�ll show her! I�ll cook her a souffl� that�ll blow her mind.� He picked up his own coffee. �Want to see the lab?�


Bruce laughed a little at Dummy and Butterfingers, said hello to Jarvis, then lost himself in playing with the virtual wireframes after Tony showed him the new element his Dad had led him to discover. They played at working until they got hungry again, when Tony had Jarvis order takeaway � sushi from the best place in town � and they sat in the lounge in the middle of the afternoon eating raw fish and rice and drinking warm sake.

�I haven�t had a drink in... in as long as I can remember.� Bruce was lying back on the carpet, knees bent, hands on his chest. His head was turned towards Tony where he was sitting with his back to the couch, legs stretched out, bare feet tapping a random rhythm against Bruce�s shins.

�I drink so I don�t have to remember.�

�You, my friend, are an alcoholic.�

Tony shrugged, more than a little distracted by the sight of a chilled out Bruce Banner lying on his living room floor. �Borderline at best.�

Bruce chuckled softly but didn�t say anything else and for a while they were silent. Tony liked the way they could just be together without the need for words. He wasn�t sure he�d known this kind of peace with anyone else before and that was strange, because at least on paper Bruce Banner should have been the last person he found it with.

Bruce sat up suddenly, cross-legged in front of Tony, and he waited for what was coming next, happy to let him set the pace of whatever was going to happen today. He reached out a hand and Tony watched two gentle fingertips tap the arc reactor in his chest through the worn black of his t-shirt.

"Can I see it?"

Oh. Tony grinned. "Sure."

He pulled his T-shirt over his head, throwing it somewhere behind him. Then he scooted closer, wrapping his legs around Bruce's hips, practically sitting in the guy's lap. Bruce tensed for a moment, understandably, but the sake in his bloodstream was mellowing both of him and he relaxed again.

"Kinda like tantric sex," Tony blurted out, then added, "I bet you know all about that stuff, don't you?"

"A few years ago I would change if my pulse rate got too high, so yes, I know about it."

Tony couldn't help it if the look on his face was somewhere between awe and adoring. He was suddenly imagining them naked, sitting like this but so much closer, with Bruce buried balls deep inside him but still just sitting, for hours, making the tiniest of movements when the pressure got too much. "I honestly think I�m head over heels in love with you."

Bruce dropped his head, pink tinges coming into his cheeks. "Tony...."

"Don't take it to heart. We�re all a little bit in love with you. Except maybe Steve. I don't think he knows what to make of either of us.� He took a deep breath, wanting desperately to move off the subject. �So? Incredibly brilliant, dashingly handsome billionaire playboy who built mini arc reactor out of scraps in a cave here."

Bruce looked up again like he'd just remembered why he was sitting on Tony's living room floor with Tony half naked in his lap. He raised his hand, more hesitant now it was bare flesh around the blue glowing light and he was careful only to touch the science and not the skin. "How did you do it?" he whispered, and Tony told him in exact and excruciating detail, every word of which Banner understood and Christ, if that wasn't the hottest thing he'd come across in a long time.

When he finished talking, Bruce looked from the reactor to his face, and Tony leaned forward and kissed him. He half-expected to be politely pushed away but he wasn�t. Bruce's hands came up to settle on his shoulders and Tony took that as tacit permission to get his fingers back into the guy�s hair, to slide his tongue into his mouth. For long, lazy minutes they kissed, deep and restless until Tony had to break away just to catch his breath.

�How slow do we need to take this?� he murmured, lips skipping across Bruce�s throat. �Do I need a lesson in extreme patience or are we okay to screw like rabbits?�

Bruce laughed, getting his hands into Tony�s hair as if in revenge, easing his head up to nip at his lips. �Something in between,� he replied, looking just a little less nervous and shy and a little more like he belonged exactly where he was. It was a good look on him; sexy as hell. It made Tony want to do filthy things with him and then cuddle with him afterwards. He was still trying to work out what might be acceptable when he felt Bruce�s hands on his bare chest, light fingers brushing their way down over his ribs to his the waistband of his jeans. �I haven�t done this in a while,� Bruce admitted, voice rough and Tony didn�t care, more than that he thought he might be relieved. He�d never gone in for jealousy but the idea of some other guy getting his hands all over this one man made him itch.

�You have natural skill,� he responded, not knowing what else to say. He was diamond hard, incapable of preventing the resulting moan when Bruce�s fingertips stroked a firm line up along the length of him through restrictive denim. He got the buttons of Bruce�s shirt undone, stroked his fingers over a hairy chest and stomach, sealing their mouths together again, swallowing the small sounds Bruce was making with every touch to his skin. This time when Tony broke away, he knelt up with his knees either side of Bruce�s hips. �Lie back,� he murmured softly, stroking sure hands over Bruce�s ribs, thumbs meeting at his fly. �Tell me to stop and I�ll stop.�

Bruce dropped back slowly, nodding, his hand sliding down Tony�s arm as he went, stopping at his wrist, eyes locking with Tony�s as he took a deep breath and unbuttoned his own fly. Covering, then replacing Bruce�s hand with his own, Tony eased his jeans and underwear down his legs and off his feet, straddled his thighs and bent double to take his erection to the back of his throat.

Bruce swore softly, touched Tony�s head for a moment like he wasn�t sure what to do with his hands, then Tony scraped his teeth lightly up the underside of his dick and Bruce started to scrabble for purchase in the thick carpet. Tony idly wondered how high his pulse rate could get before he simply lost control but he wasn�t saying stop so he didn�t, just backed off slightly, taking it easy, using his tongue, his fingers behind heavy balls. One of Bruce�s hands settled on Tony�s head, fingers curling gently into his hair, no pressure just a maybe a need for more of a connection so Tony reached for his other hand blindly, found it and laced their fingers.

�Christ, Tony....�

He could feel fingernails against his scalp, a slight pull on his hair, then Bruce was trying to get him to lift off and as he still hadn�t said the magic word, Tony assumed the threat wasn�t the big guy but the imminent danger of....


He hollowed his cheeks and sucked and Bruce came, body tense and shaking, Tony�s name like a mantra on his lips and fuck, that was hot. Not that his ego needed any more stroking. He reached down to free himself and felt a tug on his hand.

�Come here.�

Kicking the denim off he stretched up along Bruce�s body to be pulled down into a harsh kiss that soon settled into something longer and deeper, and he felt Bruce�s hand wrap around his dick and moaned with embarrassing volume.

It wasn�t going to take much, Bruce might not have done this a while but he knew what to do with his hand like most guys did. Despite keeping it slow his grip was fucking perfect and Tony came after a few hard strokes, his face buried between Bruce�s neck and shoulder, shuddering through the aftershocks and eventually dropping to lie half on the floor, half on Bruce. One arm came up to wrap around his shoulders and Tony closed his eyes, the sun starting to set outside the windows, the house silent around them.


He woke suddenly, with someone poking him in the ribs and saying his name insistently but sounding nervous doing it as they bloody well should have been, waking him at some ungodly hour for whatever the hell they wanted.

�Tony.� Bruce was the first thing he saw, with a look of something approaching terror on his face. Turning his head he saw Pepper standing over them, looking at him in that way she did when he�d done something really bad. His house, his floor, his fucking boyfriend, he couldn�t work out what he�d done wrong but maybe they should take it somewhere more comfortable. Now he was awake, he was definitely up for Round 2.

He sat up, and Bruce scrambled after him, a hell of a lot more embarrassed that Tony was. He stood and offered a hand up, which Bruce immediately grabbed back once he was on his feet to cover himself. Tony didn�t bother; Pepper had seen it all before.

�We�ll....� He pointed in the general direction of his bedroom. �Introductions later, okay?�

Pepper nodded slowly and Bruce followed him out of the living room, down one floor to the master suite.

�That wasn�t quite the introduction I had in mind,� Tony confessed as closed the bedroom door and turned. The confidence from earlier was gone, Bruce was looking for something to cover up with and Tony felt a little like banging his head against the wall. He took Bruce�s hands, brought them to his lips and kissed his fingertips before leaning in to kiss his mouth. �She�s seen me in much more compromising positions, believe me, and you have nothing to be ashamed of. So she got an eyeful. She�s just going to be jealous.�

�Hey, if you and her....�

�I meant of me, big fella.� He smiled, glanced at the bed and just like that the nervousness was gone again and Bruce was back with him in the here and now.


They came together; Tony�s hand wrapped around them both, the friction alone enough to bring them off. Bruce fell asleep almost immediately, wiped out and safe in Tony�s arms.

Tony lay awake for a while, body clock shot to tell, watching his new lover sleep. He thought about what Bruce had said about everything � the military, his heart beat, how long it had been since he�d done this. He couldn�t imagine being so scared of himself that he couldn�t connect with another human being. But he knew what it was like to be locked in an unpredictable, failing body, a prisoner in his own skin. And he knew what it was like to be held against his will, to be brutalised and terrorised. He didn�t want to think about how the military had tortured Bruce, what they�d done to try to get the hulk to make an appearance, forcing the change, bringing him back just to do it over again. He�d never met anyone more gentle and unassuming. Never met anyone quite so damaged.

He remembered Coulson sending him to meet with General Ross to talk about the Avengers, remembered thinking there was something cooky about the whole thing. He�d ended up buying the bar if memory served just to get a drink. He�d disliked Ross on sight and now he knew what the guy had done to his Bruce, even using Stark Industries kit to do it, he was going to make sure, through channels that couldn�t be traced back to him, that the General took an early retirement, one way or the other.

His Bruce. He privately liked the ring it had even thought he�d never dream of saying it out loud. He dropped a kiss into the black hair tickling his chin and rested his cheek against the top of Bruce�s head, closing his eyes. Never again would he need to run, Tony made a silent promise to him as much for his own benefit as it was for Bruce�s. This wasn�t a one-off thing, this was real, for keeps. He hadn�t really known that before and now he�d found it no one, absolutely no one, was going to take it away from him.

�I love you.� He mouthed the words, trying them out for size. He�d said it before to a handful of people but it had meant something different to what he was feeling right at that moment, what he�d been feeling since finally meeting the man whose work he�d appreciated for years. Bruce Banner in the flesh was more than he could ever have imagined and he was only just beginning to understand the impact that meeting was going to have on his future, on his life. On him. �I love you.� The words were spoken on a breath, not yet heard by the man they were meant for, but finally he was able to close his eyes and wait for sleep.