by elfin


Tony looks up from where he�s sitting, cross-legged, back from the glass where the bridge meets the hull of the helicarrier.  �Hi.�  They�re docked, weighing heavy in the water, repairs taking place.  War�s been averted along with the most immediate crisis.  The clean-up, the paperwork, the politics are someone else�s problem.  It�s good to see Bruce.  He�s been confident that there would be time to talk him into not leaving but maybe he hasn�t been absolutely sure until now.

�May I?�

Tony nods and Bruce sits down beside him, legs dangling over the edge between the floor and the glass.  The design impressed Tony from the moment he saw it even though he�s bound to lose things down the gap.  He�s been taking notes for the next tower, perhaps even for the rebuild of the current one. 

�Are you okay?� Bruce asks him, and Tony smiles, nods. 

�Thanks to the Other Guy.  Couple of bruises, couple of cracked ribs.  Nothing live threatening.  Guess we know what he saved you for.�

�To save you?�  Bruce laughs and Tony does too.  �That�s a nice sentiment.� 

�I thought so.  Are you okay?  You took quite a tumble.�

�Thirty thousand feet off a fighter jet apparently.  I�m fine.�  He turns away, rings his hands together and Tony watches him, fighting off all kinds of feelings he isn�t used to dealing with.  Bruce Banner has dropped into his life with the emotional equivalent of a nuke and he isn't sure what to do with any of it.  �Steve says you knew I�d come back.�

�I believed in you,� Tony admits, because it would be easy to pretend nothing has changed but he's never been one to take the simple, painless path.

"The others didn't."

"They don't know you as well as I do yet." 

�I came back because of you.�

�I know.�

Bruce smiles.   �I just wanted to say thanks.  No one�s ever done as much for me as you have.  I don�t know if you meant to do it or if I was just another challenge.....�

Tony turns, catches Bruce�s gaze and holds it.  He shakes his head slowly.  �I don�t know what this is but it�s definitely not just another challenge.�

�I really should go, Tony.�

He's not talking about simply getting some sleep, he's talking about leaving for good, dropping out of sight again, as off the grid as he ever gets with S.H.I.E.L.D. tracking his every move.  Tony isn't surprised to discover he doesn't want that.  He leans to his left, shoulder dropping against Bruce�s, nudging gently, almost playfully.  �I was kinda hoping to talk you into staying.�

�I was kinda hoping you would.�  His voice is low, quiet, touching something at the base of Tony�s spine. 

"I did think you'd want to be in the wind the moment this was all over."

"Did you?"  Tony doesn't answer.  He's thinking maybe he's missed something.  "Wherever I run, it never seems far enough."

He nods.  He gets that.  �My previous invitation still stands."

"Would that be the spoken or unspoken one?"

Tony is definitely impressed now and even more surprised.  He spent forty eight hours working with Bruce at close proximity in the wishbone lab with very few breaks and very little sleep, mainlining caffeine drinks and half-healthy snacks, flirting with him every which way from subtle to downright suggestive and he got nothing back in return except for those gorgeous little wry smiles that had him continuously fishing for more.  He thought perhaps he just wasn�t the good doctor�s type, as much as he hated to think that.

Turns out he just might be.  He sits up and tilts his head.  "Are you coming on to me, Dr Banner?"

Bruce actually looks at him with a genuine, open smile playing over his lips and his eyes wide.  Such a Goddamn beautiful man.  Tony finds himself speechless for the first time ever.  "Maybe."

He has to force words out of his mouth just in case this new, braver Bruce is scared away by silence.  "It�s about time, Jeez!  You really make a guy work-"  He's interrupted by a kiss, if it could be called that, just the briefest pressure against his lips, there for a moment then gone so fast he barely registers it.  But it shuts him up because his body reacts faster than his brain for once and the surge of arousal is quite frankly paralysing. 

"If I'd known that was what it took to keep you quiet..."

"Yeah, you know for a genius you're kinda slow on the uptake."  He almost doesn't make it through that sentence either, because the fingers of Bruce's left hand have settled against the arc reactor where it's shining through his shirt.  Tony glances down at them, heart beating its way potentially out through his rib cage, dick so hard he could stack doughnuts on it. 

"I guess now I have your complete attention."

He couldn't have had it any more completely if he'd actually taken Tony directly by the balls. He nods, glancing up only to be instantly caught by the depth of sincerity and lightness of joy in those caramel eyes.

"You're the best man I've ever met.  And believe me, I've thought carefully about those words because I don't know how much bigger your ego can get and still fit in the suit."  Tony doesn't have a smart answer because his brain's busy processing the incredible compliment.  So he just sticks out his tongue and Bruce laughs so it's worth the moment of childish behaviour in what's got to be the most adult conversation he's had in a while.  "Working so closely with you before all hell broke loose were some of the best hours of my life.  It's been a long time since I've known real collaboration let alone friendship.  People are usually wary of me at best, more likely scared of me but you..." He shakes his head.  "The grown up part of me knows I should leave, knows this can only end badly, but I don't want to.  I want to stay but I can only do that with your help.  There are still people I have to be scared of, still people who want me in a cage or strapped to a table in a lab and I can't... I can't do that, go through that, not again."

Tony's erection at least subsides as anger spreads through him.  He's read about the accident but there must be other files, locked or deleted, detailing the experiments afterwards, before he escaped the army's clutches and went on the run.  "If anyone lays a finger on you I'll kill them myself," he promises and means it.

"That isn't what I need."

"Then consider it a freebee.  And you can have anything.  A place to call home, somewhere you're safe, you've got it.  R&D facilities with cutting edge tech and limitless possibilities and endless funding, they're yours."

There's a pause where the words 'thank you' should be, only they're not needed.  Instead, Bruce asks, "What about you?"

"Hey, I'm yours too.  I've never had a lab partner before this.  It's good, I like it.  I like you. You're the first person I've met who doesn't only keep up but is way ahead of me."

"I meant more what do you want from me."

Oh.  That�s easy.  "I just need a promise.  No more guns.  Not only are they primitive and you both deserve way better, you're too unique to be another statistic.  Seriously, if I come down to the lab one morning to find your brains all over the floor, you're out on your ass."

Bruce chuckles but it's laced with sadness.  "Don't worry.  It takes a hell of a lot of courage, determination and desperation to kill yourself.  I found it once, I don't think I have it in me to find it again."

Tony tentatively covers Bruce's hand where it's still resting in the centre of his chest.  He presses his fingers between Bruce's fingers and meets his gaze. "I'm going to make sure you never get low enough to even consider it."

Bruce nods.  "Okay.  I can make that promise, but no more.  I'm sorry, Tony, I want this but I have no idea how it's going to work out."

"It's going to work out fine-"

"Excuse me."

They look up together, and Tony momentarily sees himself through Nick Fury's eye; the two of them sitting facing one another, hands clasped over Tony's heart.  Sickly sweet and achingly romantic.  But he doesn't let go.

"Do you mind?  We're talking here."

"It really looks like something else.  And you're distracting my people." 

Over Fury's shoulder the skeleton crew on the bridge were absolutely definitely not looking in their direction.  "Should we take this somewhere more private, Doctor?"

Bruce carefully pulls back his hand but he nods with a smile and Tony's relieved that the flirty version of him is still with them.  They both get to their feet.

"Do I take it Doctor Banner will be staying with us longer than expected?"

"Doctor Banner will be staying with me," Tony clarifies, "if that's all right with you, Nick?"  His tone makes it clear that he doesn't care one way or the other.  Fury smiles.

"I�m happy to support Doctor Banner's decision."

"Easier to keep tabs on him if you're supposed to know where he is."

Nick doesn't rise to it, merely remarks, "Cheaper too."

Fury watches them retreat towards the body of the helicarrier.  Their lab�s still being rebuilt but the social areas remain mostly intact.  A stranger pair he can�t imagine, although maybe it�s not so strange that after years of a lonely existence in the worst of places, Banner should be seduced by the warm welcome and blank research cheque that Stark�s offering.  And perhaps after years of being the only genius on the block it isn�t so surprising that Stark should be drawn to Banner�s wealth of knowledge, to his experience and to the danger. 

There just looks to be more to it, what with the holding hands and meaningful glances, Stark�s protective streak and Banner�s sudden change of heart when it comes to living in New York.  He can only hope it works out.  A pissed off Bruce Banner is bad enough, but he would rather deal with the Hulk any day of the week over a morose, drunk, doughnut-guzzling Tony Stark.  Joyful laughter reaches him from the back of the bridge and he makes a decision.  If it all goes wrong, he�s leaving the country. 

If it all goes right, on the other hand, they are going to be a force to be reckoned with.  And Tony Stark�s going to be more unbearable than ever.

Oh, joy.